05/17/11 11:35 AM ET
Killebrew a giant and gentleman of the game
Hall of Famer's class, kindness made him shine among greats
By Hal Bodley / MLB.com
Think about it.
You're dying from cancer and it's time to dim the lights, face the inevitable and say goodbye.
If you're Harmon Killebrew, you do it with modesty, class and in a humble and honest way.
When the Hall of Famer said last week, "I've exhausted all options with respect to controlling this awful disease," my immediate thought was this was vintage Killebrew. Few people at this moment could issue such a profound, genuine statement.
How do you say goodbye?
For Killebrew, it was a fastball down the middle, no sugar-coating the moment: "My illness has progressed beyond my doctors' expectations of cure ... I am very comfortable taking this next step ... I look forward to spending my final days in comfort and peace with [my wife] Nita by my side."
Harmon, 74, who died on Tuesday in Scottsdale, Ariz., let the esophageal cancer run its course in hospice care.
Eleventh on the all-time home-run list with 573, he was one of the most respected, beloved players I've met.
Yes, as a feared slugger he blasted tape-measure home runs Minnesota Twins fans still talk about, but I'm certain his legacy as a gentleman and a sensitive and caring human being off the field is even more important.
That's why he felt he had to issue his "farewell statement" last week.
"As good as he was in baseball, he was probably even better as a person," says Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, a former Twins teammate.
Killebrew made the annual visits to Cooperstown for Hall of Fame induction weekends special. He'd bring along his mild, good-natured personality and add an ingredient to the days that will be sorely missed.
He loved to repeat the story about him and his brother as youngsters growing up in Idaho.
"My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard," he'd say. "Mother would come out and say, 'You're tearing up the grass.' 'We're not raising grass,' Dad would reply. 'We're raising boys.'"
And a future Hall of Famer.
Several years ago, I watched Jim Thome spend countless minutes signing autographs and talking with fans. He refused to rush anyone who took the time to approach him.
Later, in the clubhouse, I mentioned to Thome "you remind me a lot of Harmon Killebrew, how he interacts with fans."
Thome smiled and said: "That's as big a compliment as you can pay me -- to be compared to him."
Bob Wolff, who broadcast Washington Senators games in 1954 when Killebrew, a bonus baby arrived, gave him the "Killer" nickname.
When he was hitting a baseball with his powerful swing, the nickname was apropos. He hit 40 homers in eight seasons, once had one measured at 520 feet and was the 1969 American League MVP.
"I didn't have evil intentions," he once said. "But I guess I did have power."
Off the field, the moniker was a mistake, an injustice. Killebrew was a quiet and kind gentleman.
"He really is the face of the Twins franchise," says former Twins pitcher Jim Kaat, a Killebrew teammate for 15 seasons. "I think he's the main reason the Twins have a reputation for being a gentlemanly organization. I think it all started with him."
When Manuel was a Twins rookie in 1969, his locker was between those of Killebrew and Harmon's best friend, the late Bob Allison.
"At the time I thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," says Manuel, who played four seasons with the Twins. "He and Allison both helped me a lot. I'd go to dinner with them and talk baseball by the hours.
"Killer liked to tell jokes and laugh a lot, but he was really a quiet guy. When it came to hitting, he was a big help for me. He'd play every game and I sat on the bench most of the time. He'd talk to me about his hitting because I was watching from the bench."
Manuel says Killebrew "used to preach to me that the most important thing was getting strikes [to swing at]. He said he didn't like to walk, but that he had to take pitches to get good strikes."
Near the end of Killebrew's career, Manuel says, he used to take a lot of pitches on the outside corner of the plate.
"Killer would ask me, 'Are those strikes?'" Manuel recalls. "We used to have an eight-track video player then. I'd watch it all the time and study his hitting. I had to tell him they were strikes and told him it was because he was pulling off the ball.
"He had a short, compact swing. It was very explosive. He was built like a fireplug. He was a slow runner and that's one of the reasons why his batting average [.256] wasn't higher. He'd have hit .300 if he could've run. They put a shift on him in left field like they do for Ryan Howard in right field now. He and Frank Howard could hit the ball harder than anyone in the game then."
When I consider many of today's home-run totals that may have been aided by steroids, Killebrew's numbers are even more impressive. Those 573 blasts obviously propelled him to Cooperstown, but it was his humble, gentle demeanor that made him a true Hall of Famer.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.